American Lynching


After observing the varying reactions to the 1998 death of James Byrd Jr. in Texas, called a lynching by some, denied by others, Ashraf Rushdy determined that to comprehend this event he needed to understand the long history of lynching in the United States. In this meticulously researched and accessibly written interpretive history, Rushdy shows how lynching in America has endured, evolved, and changed in meaning over the course of three centuries, from its origins in ...

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American Lynching

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After observing the varying reactions to the 1998 death of James Byrd Jr. in Texas, called a lynching by some, denied by others, Ashraf Rushdy determined that to comprehend this event he needed to understand the long history of lynching in the United States. In this meticulously researched and accessibly written interpretive history, Rushdy shows how lynching in America has endured, evolved, and changed in meaning over the course of three centuries, from its origins in early Virginia to the present day.

Rushdy argues that we can understand what lynching means in American history by examining its evolution—that is, by seeing how the practice changes in both form and meaning over the course of three centuries, by analyzing the rationales its advocates have made in its defense, and, finally, by explicating its origins. The best way of understanding what lynching has meant in different times, and for different populations, during the course of American history is by seeing both the continuities in the practice over time and the specific features in different forms of lynching in different eras. 

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Editorial Reviews

N. D. B. Connolly
"A work of uncommon breadth, written with equally uncommon concision. Excellent."—N. D. B. Connolly, Johns Hopkins University
W. Fitzhugh Brundage
“Rushdy has written a provocative but careful, opinionated but persuasive overview of lynching in the United States. Beyond synthesizing current scholarship, he offers a cogent discussion of the evolving definition of lynching, the place of lynchers in civil society, and the slow-in-coming end of lynching. This book should be the point of entry for anyone interested in the tragic and sordid history of American lynching.”— W. Fitzhugh Brundage, author of Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930
William Carrigan
“Ashraf H. A. Rushdy’s American Lynching is a sophisticated and thought-provoking examination of the historical relationship between the American culture of lynching and the nation’s political traditions. This engaging and wide-ranging meditation on the connection between democracy, lynching, freedom, and slavery will be of interest to those in and outside of the academy.”—William Carrigan, Rowan University
Jonathan Holloway
"In this sobering account, Rushdy makes clear that the cultural values that authorize racial violence are woven into the very essence of what it means to be American. This book helps us make sense of our past as well as our present."—Jonathan Holloway, Yale University
“A welcome and timely contribution to lynching historiography.”—Choice
The Hurston/Wright Foundation - Legacy Award
Honored by The Hurston/Wright Foundation for the Legacy Award 2013 in the Nonfiction Category.
“A welcome and timely contribution to lynching historiography.”—Choice
Kirkus Reviews
An all-encompassing history of lynchings in America from 1780 to the present. Rushdy (African-American Studies/Wesleyan Univ.; Remembering Generations: Race and Family in Contemporary African American Fiction, 2000, etc.) delves deeply into the complicated subject of lynching in America, both from a historical and linguistic perspective. "There are different kinds of lynchings," writes the author, "different sorts of acts, some of which are called lynchings and others not, driven by different motives, employing different strategies, and occurring in different historical contexts." In short, "lynching" knows no singular definition, and, according to Rushdy, it is a term "more evocative than descriptive." For the most part, however, the author steers clear of the subject's evocative nature and relies on an intellectual distance that allows scholarship to outweigh pathos. From Revolutionary War colonel Charles Lynch's 1780 extralegal execution of a Tory to the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. by white supremacists, Rushdy's sweeping story addresses race, politics and the sordid history of vigilante justice that often brought them together. While relying heavily on previous scholarship, the author's most interesting contribution surrounds his argument that lynching "was not just a means of social control that replaced slavery. It was a product of slavery." That institution, Rushdy argues, created the culture that "empowered [the] lynch mob." A triumphant work on the problematic history of one of America's longest and most troubling traditions.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300205879
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2014
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 1,260,182
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Ashraf H. A. Rushdy is Benjamin L. Waite Professor in English Language and chair of African American studies at Wesleyan University.

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Read an Excerpt


By Ashraf H. A. Rushdy


Copyright © 2012 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18474-7

Chapter One

The Rise of Lynching

At the National Convention of Colored Men held in Syracuse, New York, in early October 1864, the Reverend H. H. Garnet reminded his listeners of a particularly notorious act of mob violence done the previous July during the New York City draft riots. After an African American man was hanged from a tree, a member of the largely Irish-American mob took "a sharp knife, cut out pieces of the quivering flesh, and offered it to the greedy, blood-thirsty mob, saying, 'Who wants some nigger meat?'" Reflecting on the uniformly kind treatment he had received while he traveled in Ireland, "from Belfast to Cork, and from Dublin to the Giant's Causeway," Garnet wondered what could have happened "that men crossing the ocean only should change as much as they." He himself concluded that the reason for the change from generous Irish to race-baiting Irish-Americans was "the debasing influence of unprincipled American politicians."

Garnet's question invites some serious reflection about the processes through which mostly European immigrants became inculcated into a peculiarly American form of racial violence. The work of more than "unprincipled American politicians," although they can certainly shoulder their share of the blame, that process has its own beginnings in the very origins of the American republic itself. The story of how violence came to be "a determinant of both the form and the substance of American life," as Richard Maxwell Brown phrases it, is arguably the concurrent story of how a people came to define themselves as Americans, and, especially, of how they came to define themselves through the practice of systemic forms of violence against people they defined as not Americans. One part of that complicated story begins for us during the Revolutionary War, when Americans were fighting to define an identity as American as the independence they had already declared.


Although scholars throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century offered several competing stories and myths of the European, biblical, and ancient origins of vigilante, extralegal justice, there is fairly widespread consensus that the origins of the term "lynch law" to define the practice of vigilante violence are to be found in the Revolutionary War.

They are more specifically to be found in the actions of the militia of Bedford County, Virginia. During the summer of 1780, the militia captured what it described as "insurgent" Tories. They whipped two of these enemy combatants and hanged a third, all without a trial or military tribunal of any kind. One member of the militia, Colonel William Campbell, justified the hanging of the "insurgent" Tory by insisting that it was done "I believe with the joint consent of near three hundred men." The leader of the Bedford County militia was a man named Colonel Charles Lynch.

The Governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, wrote a tactful letter to Lynch to commend him for what he had done, although Jefferson, realizing just what precedent had been set by Lynch's actions, suggested that in the future Colonel Lynch ought to take any prisoners he captured and deliver them to the Commonwealth rather than deal with them in his own way. "The method of seizing them at once which you have adopted is much the best," Jefferson noted. "You have only to take care that they be regularly tried after," he continued, suggesting that Lynch consult the attorney for the Commonwealth in Bedford County about how to proceed in those trials. For Jefferson, what Campbell claimed was the "joint consent" of the people was apparently not the kind of force or authority he wanted to replace the courts and legal system of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Charles Lynch, however, ignored Jefferson's advice and continued to pursue his own course. He and his militia continued to resort to extrajudicial forms of examination and punishment in what he called "trying torys &c &c." Indeed, two years after his first efforts at extrajudicial punishment of those he captured, he began to use the phrase "Lynchs Law" to describe the rough justice he dispensed to those he deemed enemies of the state. Those placed under that rubric included people who traded illegally in slaves and, in one particularly notable instance, Welsh lead miners who ran afoul of Lynch and whom he suppressed violently.

Historians of lynching have rightly called Charles Lynch "the first lyncher," that is, the first American who employed the particular practice of summary justice under the name of "Lynch law," the phrase that would later become "lynching." The term "Lynch law," then, entered the local parlance in the James River region of Virginia shortly after Lynch coined it in 1782. It began quickly to spread throughout the rest of the Southern states, as one poetic example demonstrates. A wag writing in an Augusta, Georgia, newspaper in 1794 commented nostalgically: "Lynch's Law, ought still to be in vogue, / It will rid the town of every cursed rogue." The term appeared as far west as Indiana by the 1820s. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the term neither replaced other terms for popular or vigilante justice, nor appeared too frequently in print prior to the 1830s.

In the Revolutionary-era origin of lynching, we can find the matrix of a variety of the themes and tensions that would manifest themselves in its later development. One of the foremost contemporary scholars of lynching, Christopher Waldrep, has made a compelling case for seeing two competing notions of lynching during the Revolutionary War: one in which militia officers exceed their assigned authority, and the other in which ordinary people act entirely outside of the law. Charles Lynch's actions demonstrate the tension between those two notions. On the one hand, the militia campaign clearly bespeaks the case of officers who do exceed their authority and who are at least tepidly warned by the governor of having done so; while on the other, Lynch also presents himself as a "frontier hero seeking justice outside of law," and seeks "good over procedural values and institutional constraints."

Waldrep also notes the "ethnic dimension of the violence" in this earliest employment of "Lynchs Law," citing as evidence a letter from the wife of one of the Welsh miners, in which she notes that "there is a misunderstanding between Colo Lynch and the Welsh in General." In addition to being a minority population, the Welsh were also the laborers in a lead mine that was in the midst of a boom. Charles Lynch himself wrote that he had "received accounts of a fine prospect of ore, and the Greatest Quantity raisd now Lying on hand that we have Ever had at any one time." His brusque and violent actions aimed at controlling this ethnic minority population of laborers necessary to harvesting an economic staple, and in a time of perceived political crisis, also set the stage for later lynchings in American history.

We see, then, in the earliest practitioners of lynching many of the elements that would continue to define the motives and practices of later lynchers, including the use of summary justice to suppress minority ethnic populations. Even more, though, we can find what I would argue are the two rudimentary claims of the first American lynchers, which we should summarize even in a somewhat schematic way since these two claims tell us much about how American lynch mobs would continue to justify their actions for the next century and a half.

First, there is the claim that the lynchers employed what they described as "frontier justice" because they deemed the courts and other institutions of the law to be either unavailable or unreliable. In the case of the Bedford militia, they felt particularly justified in their summary procedures because they were operating in a state of war. The proper institutions of the society, in this case the courts, were not absent per se but undergoing revolutionary changes. It is perhaps for this reason that Governor Jefferson was not as emphatic as he would have been under conditions of peace in alerting Colonel Lynch to this breach of protocol and justice. It is also perhaps for this reason that the Virginia legislature would indemnify Lynch and his fellow militia members in a 1782 Act that tactfully praised them for suppressing the "conspiracy" by "timely and effectual measures" that while "not ... strictly warranted by law" were nonetheless "justifiable from the imminence of the danger." This Act of Indemnity left the Bedford militia members "exonerated of and from all pains, penalties, prosecutions, actions, suits, and damages." Should they ever be indicted or prosecuted for their extralegal violence, they "may plead in bar, or the general issue, and give this act in evidence." Ironically, then, the lawmakers of the state placed beyond the reach of the law the first American lynchers, the first under that name to usurp the role of courts and executioners.

Second, there is the claim of popular sovereignty—essentially the argument that the people constituted the original and primal force of governance, and could therefore consent or not consent to the making and enforcing of the law by their representatives. Here, we can note how important it was that the Bedford militia borrowed from the vocabulary of democratic revolution in order to sanction their extralegal acts. Colonel Campbell's claim that the militia acted with the "joint consent" of the people suggests that their actions were not just those of military officers but of representatives of those whose "consent" they enjoyed. The colonel cannily used a key term that would be difficult to impeach. The governor who urged them to employ trials in the future had four years earlier penned a declaration stating the "right of the people" to be governed by their "consent." This was the American language of the revolution, but it was also the language of earlier dissenters. The antimonarchists in England and the Puritans in colonial Massachusetts had likewise employed precisely the same concept, as when John Winthrop, for instance, claimed the power of the "consent of a certaine companie of people." Here was a situation of colonial revolutionaries struggling against monarchists, who implicitly believe "consent" to be immaterial in the matter of governance (a monarch does not require consent), fighting for their right to identify whose "consent" matters and constitutes the force to justify any action. The term "consent," then, in this context, was shorthand for the idea of popular sovereignty.

Nobody has done a better job of demonstrating the subterfuge involved in the concept of popular sovereignty than Edmund Morgan. In a remarkable study, he exposes how the elites in colonial and revolutionary America invented the idea of "the people" as a serviceable political fiction that would enable those elites to make claims about the popular sovereignty they enjoyed and in whose name they acted. What they used the claim of popular sovereignty for, ironically, is to advocate and demand deference from their underlings, rather than insurgence. There was nothing "popular" about their sovereignty. Later, the concept would continue to serve this same oppressive function as the yeomanry employed it to counsel deference in matters of politics and power from paupers and the property-less. It was only later that the myth of popular sovereignty would become a weapon in the hands of the enfranchised masses. That largely happened, as we shall see below, around the time that the term "lynching" entered American print culture during the Jackson presidency.

Once that happened, the "people" became a term lynchers of all sorts used to justify the act of murder by a select, self-appointed group. In the 1850s, defenders of the Vigilance Committee in California described the masses pursuing vigilante justice as "not a mob, but the people, in the highest sense of the term." Half a century later, Tom Watson, still the populist though no longer a Populist, vehemently defended the lynchers of Leo Frank by postulating that the "people" may delegate but never surrender to their "agents" the power of governance. "When the Sheriff kills," Watson argued, "it is not his act; it is the act of the People, performed through their statutory law." When the sheriff fails to act in accordance with what the people want, the lynching that follows is just as legal because its sanction comes from the ultimate source of all law. "The Voice of the People Is the Voice of God," ran the headline for Watson's article.

These, in sum, were the two primary claims made by the first people to practice lynching under the name of "Lynch Law." Their first justification involved the claim that the institutions upholding the law were either absent, insufficient, or corrupt. The people needed to protect themselves and their property through their own means. This claim would become the one most often used by those who inhabited the "frontier"—in the West or in their minds. The second justification involved the claim of popular sovereignty, that is, that the "people" constituted the final arbiters and appeal for their representatives, and therefore could act on the powers they granted to their elected or appointed officials. This claim had previously, and would thereafter, be employed by those who believed that formal legal systems—with rights and procedures to protect individual liberties—in no way reflected the more important informal system of communal values and mores. When the community enforced its own values by punishing those who violated widely accepted norms by meting out what it felt to be appropriately harsh penalties, it claimed to be dispensing a form of justice that was not corrupted or derailed by an excessive dependence on formal constraints meant to protect individuals from the power of the state. Here, it argued, was substantial justice unfettered, upholding genuine communal values.

While we are making a mild distinction between these two claims, they do belong to the same system of values and in discussions of lynching were more often conflated than distinguished. The reason for us to make the distinction at all is that it demonstrates the different strands of prolynching rhetoric and reveals the differing emphases placed by some on situation (frontier) and by others on democratic values (popular sovereignty). The notable difference, as I suggested in the Introduction, is that the frontier argument rests on the supposition that the situation will inevitably change—lynchers perform justice that one day will be performed by more civilized and established systems—while the popular sovereignty argument rests on an attitude of perpetual confrontation to those established systems. Representative politics for the popular sovereignty argument is not simply a formal system with annual or biennial elections; it is a system in which "consent" can be given by a fraction of the population to self-proclaimed executors of the public will in ad hoc acts of directed collective violence.


At the end of the Revolutionary War, the terms "lynching" and "Lynch law" had not yet assumed the meanings they would later assume—extralegal murder by a mob intent on upholding communal values, including white supremacy. Indeed, although Lynch law could prove fatal, as it did for the Tory hanged by the Bedford militia, it could also manifest itself in nonlethal ways, as it did for the other two men the Bedford militia had whipped. The term was used to describe a range of shaming rituals, such as whipping and tarring and feathering, as well as execution-style mob activity. One of the very first newspapers to define the term for a reading public noted somewhat vaguely that lynching was "a mode of punishment provided for such as become obnoxious in a manner which the law cannot reach." That paper was the Vicksburg Register, and the acts of violence it was reporting proved to be a crucial turning point in the development of American lynching.

On July 4, 1835, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, a fight threatened to break out between an officer of the corps of Vicksburg volunteers and a gambler named Cabler at the Independence Day barbecue. The fight was momentarily averted when Cabler departed, but he soon returned to the barbecue to continue where he had left off—this time, though, armed with a large knife, a dagger, and a loaded pistol. The crowd disarmed and punished him. A reporter covering the story wrote that a "crowd of respectable citizens" marched Cabler out into the woods, tied him to a tree, and then proceeded first to whip and then tar and feather him. Once his punishment was finished, the crowd told Cabler to leave Vicksburg within forty-eight hours. After the crowd completed the work of punishing Cabler, they began to fear that his peers would exact revenge on the town.


Excerpted from AMERICAN LYNCHING by Ashraf H. A. Rushdy Copyright © 2012 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface: An American Icon ix

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction: The Study of Lynching 1

Chapter 1 The Rise of Lynching 22

Chapter 2 The Race of Lynching 51

Chapter 3 The Age of Lynching 69

Chapter 4 The Discourse of Lynching 94

Conclusion: The Meanings of Lynching 123

Epilogue: American Lynching 154

Notes 157

Bibliography 191

Index 209

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